December 1st, 2007

Chinatown is Changing

Posted in Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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In September, the owner of Swatow, an import/export business, announced he will replace his St. Laurent Blvd. store with a $20-million shopping centre – the first major real-estate investment in Chinatown since the 1980s – that will include a supermarket, office space, a rooftop banquet hall and small boutiques similar to those found in Toronto or Vancouver’s trendy Asian malls.

Earlier this year, a number of new businesses opened elsewhere in the neighbourhood, including the third Canadian location of Xiao Fei Yang, a Chinese hot pot chain with hundreds of locations across Asia.

These changes in Chinatown’s retail landscape – toward businesses that appeal to a wider segment of the population, like young people and Mandarin-speakers from the mainland – are happening as Montreal’s growing Chinese population is becoming increasingly dispersed throughout the city.

“The demographics of Chinatown are definitely changing,” said Ting Kwan Hung, a community organizer who lived in Hong Kong, Liverpool, New York and Toronto before coming to Montreal in 2004. “There are more and more non-Cantonese speaking people and you also see more Chinese youth who speak French.”

Nodes of Chinese businesses and services have emerged outside of Chinatown, especially in Brossard, home to the largest concentration of Chinese immigrants in the Montreal metropolitan area. Other neighbourhoods, like Ville St. Laurent, Côte des Neiges, Verdun and the west end of downtown, also have large or growing Chinese populations.

Now that Chinese supermarkets, restaurants, dentists and other services are found throughout the city, can Chinatown stay relevant to Chinese Montrealers?

“There’s a lot of new immigrants, but they don’t spend much money,” said Tran Tao Cam, the vice-president of the Montreal Chinese Chamber of Commerce. “There are also lots of students from very rich families, but they don’t come to Chinatown. Look at the area near Concordia, along Ste. Catherine. There used to be only two or three Chinese businesses, now there’s 30 or 40.”

Tran worries the high cost of parking, issues with cleanliness, competition from business in other parts of the city and even the rising dollar will keep people from coming to Chinatown in the future. Still, he said, it remains “a very special area for business,” one that continues to draw a large variety of people.

Jane, 45, who does not want her last name published, is one example. Unlike most Chinese immigrants to Montreal, she actually lives in Chinatown, where she shares a subsidized apartment with her 15-year-old son, Tony. On a recent evening, Tony worked on his computer while Jane prepared dinner. Outside, with city hall visible in the distance, clothes hung drying on the balcony. A few bikes occupied a corner of the living room.

“We found them around the neighbourhood,” explained Jane, in Cantonese. “They’re broken. Tony is going to fix them.”

Jane and Tony moved to Montreal last November from China’s southern Guangdong province. While her husband works in China, Jane studies French full-time and Tony attends high school in the Plateau. It was Jane’s cousin who found them a place to live in Chinatown, thinking it would be easier for her to start her life in Montreal if she lived in a place where she could speak Cantonese or Mandarin.

So far, that has certainly been the case. “I like it here because everyone understands me,” she said, adding she also enjoys Chinatown’s central location and the convenience of being able to buy Chinese groceries just one block from home. She also has made new friends by volunteering at the Chinese Family Service, an organization that serves new immigrants.

Tony, meanwhile, is one of just 13 Chinese students at his school. Most of the others, he says, are black and Latino, but he is still shy about speaking French – so he hangs out mainly with his Chinese classmates, one of whom lives on the floor above him. “We play Ping-Pong,” he said, “or go swimming.”

Eventually, Jane said, she would like to move away from Chinatown, to a neighbourhood where she could buy a house and a car. But would she still come back? “Yes,” she answered. “My cousin lives in LaSalle and she still comes every week.”

That also is the case for Mary Zhang, 21. She and her roommate, Eric Li, 22, live in a Plateau apartment near Laurier métro, but they visit Chinatown on a regular basis.

Both Li and Zhang grew up in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, a province known for its salty, spicy food. In fact, they even attended the same middle school. But they didn’t get to know each other until 2004, when Li moved here with his mother, who had married a Montrealer, and Zhang moved here from Vancouver to study neuroscience at McGill University.

Living together gives them a chance to speak Sichuanese at home – and to eat the food, too. Zhang usually goes to Chinatown for groceries. “It’s pretty close and it has the concentration of things I need,” she said. “I go eat at the restaurants, go to the supermarkets and the bakery with the shrimp dumplings and Chinese pastries, the one with the red benches. It’s always busy, which means it’s good.”

Li, however, while munching on a package of Yi bin yar tsai – a type of spicy preserved bean sprout from Sichuan – pointed out some of the Chinese supermarkets in other parts of Montreal have more variety and lower prices than Chinatown.

“There are preserved vegetables that I can only get at Marché Hawaii,” he said, referring to a big-box style Chinese supermarket in Ville St. Laurent. “That’s kind of exciting. I searched all over Chinatown trying to find that.”

Li’s mother lives on the South Shore and his aunt lives on the West Island. Chinatown is just one place they go to buy Chinese groceries, he said. Still, they often get together in Chinatown for dinner and what Li calls “Cantonese breakfast” – better known as dim sum – because the neighbourhood is centrally located and there is such a large concentration of restaurants.

Chinatown has other attractions, too. “Last summer, I went to a few film screenings at the Chinese Family Service,” Zhang said. “Sometimes I run into festivals and I’ll stay there and watch a little. If they have the street fair, I’ll look through the things.”

Ultimately, though, Li and Zhang have a fairly pragmatic relationship with the neighbourhood. Part of that might have to do with a cultural disconnect. Chinatown is, compared to Montreal’s overall Chinese population, disproportionately Cantonese. Even its gates reinforce that image, reading Tong yun gai, or Tong People Street – an expression that refers mainly to Cantonese people.

“The buildings and the people are really kind of Cantonese, so I don’t really feel associated with it. I don’t really go there for cultural reasons,” Li said. “I feel that the waitresses (in Chinatown) are less patient with me because I don’t speak Cantonese,” Zhang added.

Gilberte, a West Island woman in her 50s who also withheld her last name, is just the opposite: She feels a strong cultural connection to Chinatown, even if she lives in the suburbs and visits it only occasionally.

“Even though it’s crowded, even though parking is difficult, you feel a sense of attachment, especially when there’s a festival. I speak French, Cantonese, Mandarin, English perfectly, so it’s not a question of comfort, but when I’m in Chinatown, I feel a bit chez moi, maybe more than when I go downtown,” she said.

Since she came to Montreal from Vietnam in 1973, Gilberte has seen Chinatown change dramatically, from a fairly marginal neighbourhood to one that draws people from across the city and across ethnic lines. She credits the wave of Chinese from Vietnam that arrived in the late 1970s for transforming the neighbourhood.

“I’m very proud that Chinatown has changed like this. I knew it before and I wasn’t very proud – people were scared to go there. There was nothing going on like today, not as many restaurants or grocery stores,” she said.

Nevertheless, Gilberte only heads to Chinatown for family gatherings, or when she needs something that can only be found in one of its supermarkets. For the most part, she goes to Kim Hoa, a supermarket on the West Island, for her Chinese groceries. “It’s not big but it has a lot of selection. It’s practical,” she said. “Marché Hawaii is big and also very practical. It’s like an IGA with a lot of parking.”

But Gilberte is quick to point to the ambitious Swatow development as evidence Chinatown still holds appeal. “That’s a good thing. It will bring more people, especially if we could fix the problem of parking,” she said. Xiao Fei Yang, the slick hot pot chain from mainland China, is a symbol of the changes that will come to Chinatown’s retail scene, she added. “That’s the future of Chinatown.”

Jonathan Cha, a doctoral candidate in urban studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal, said the Swatow project will compete with new Chinese businesses in the suburbs, Brossard especially, in an effort to reinforce Chinatown as the Chinese community’s social and economic hub.

Even now, he said, Chinatown is still able to attract a wide variety of people from across the city, including second- and third-generation Montrealers of Chinese descent who speak mostly French or English. He pointed to himself as an example. His father, half-Chinese and half-French Canadian, grew up in Chinatown before leaving for the suburbs. But Cha is still drawn to his dad’s old neighbourhood, even though he is, in his own words, “not very Chinese.”

“I’m only a quarter Chinese but I still have a strong sense of attachment to Chinatown,” he said. “It’s a symbolic thing, a question of identity.”

A community in numbers

Number of people of Chinese origin living in the Montreal metropolitan area:

2006: 80,000 (estimate)
2001: 52,110
1996: 46,115

Number of Chinese immigrants arriving in Quebec:

2001-2006: 18,749
1997-2001: 12,873

Moving away from Chinatown:

12 per cent of the Montreal region’s immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan live in Brossard. Another 11 per cent live in the downtown west end, in Chinatown and in the lower Plateau. The rest live throughout the city, but especially in Ville St. Laurent, Côte des Neiges and, increasingly, Verdun.

Sources: Statistics Canada; Ministère de l’Immigration et des Communautés culturelles du Québec; Institut national de la recherche scientifique, UQÀM

This article originally appeared in the December 1st, 2007 edition of the Montreal Gazette.


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2 comments

  1. David Maloney says:

    I’m intrigued by the Chinese population of Montreal. It would be interesting to explore the general differences of Montreal’s Chinese immigrants versus those of Vancouver or Toronto.

    Given the “English is the ticket to success” mentality of Asia, one might wonder why on Earth Chinese people, and other East Asians are choosing to immigrate to a city that is officially French speaking? I’d also be interested in your general observations (political views, lifestyle choices, cultural interests) of Chinese-Vancouverites/ Torontonians versus Chinese-Montrealers.

    December 4th, 2007 at 2:22 am

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    The “‘English is the ticket to success’ mentality” is certainly not universal. Canada is not exactly an entrepreneur’s paradise — anyone who wants to make lots of money will stay in Asia.

    Instead, most Chinese immigrants I have met came here for the stability and social services. (One depanneur owner I spoke to pointed out that, even if he was working in a professional occupation back home, he had no job security and nothing to fall back on if he became ill or lost his job.)

    Beyond that, family/friend connections usually trump any inherent draws a place might have. You’d be hard-pressed to find an immigrant who came to Montreal because he just picked it randomly from a map.

    In terms of language, I think — and this is of course a huge generalization — that mainland Chinese immigrants don’t really have the same cultural conceptions of English as immigrants from Hong Kong. Since almost all mainlanders have come here since the mid-90s, they have all dealt directly with Quebec’s immigration system, not Canada’s, so they realize that knowing French gives them an advantage. Almost every recent mainland immigrant I’ve met is taking or has taken French courses.

    Don’t forget that, in the 1970s and 80s, many Chinese immigrants came from former French colonies like Vietnam, Cambodia and Madagascar, where the second language has traditionally been French.

    December 4th, 2007 at 3:48 pm

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